Final Four Time For Lawmakers’ Last Push

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State Net Capitol Journal

Despite the change from two-party to one-party control of both policy-making branches of government, the traditional end-crunch of activity is shaping up no different — and some say worst — from past years when Democrats regularly sparred with Republican governors. In part that’s because of the recent tensions between Democratic legislative leaders and Gov. Gray Davis over health care reform, which showed no signs of easing last week and may get torqued even further before session ends next month.

Some had hoped that the summer break would result in an outbreak of detente between the two Democratic camps, especially after Davis’ now-infamous eruption last month at a San Francisco Chronicle editorial board meeting. At that sitdown — or meltdown, as some have characterized it — Davis shocked lawmakers when he said it was the Legislature’s duty to implement his political vision. Davis’ remarks exacerbated what was already a growing level of frustration among legislative leaders with the governor’s earlier attempts to stop the 70-bill gauntlet of legislation affecting health care coverage and the way HMOs operate in California from reaching his desk.

Davis’ preemptive strategy continued last week when it was reported by the Associated Press that administration officials were shopping a survey showing health care to be a low priority among voters, in an effort to prove that dramatic policy changes were currently unjustified. The story quoted an administration source as saying legislative leaders had “sat there like deaf mutes” in failing to stop the wave of health care legislation from going forward.

That accusation prompted a particularly angry response from Sen. Pres pro Tem. John Burton (D-San Francisco). “Our job is to pass legislation. Those people can go (expletive) themselves, all right?” Burton told AP.

Davis has said he is interested in signing only a handful of bills this year dealing with HMOs. The areas he’s willing to consider include giving patients the right to sue their HMO, establishing independent reviews of medical decisions when care is denied and possibly shifting state oversight of managed-care providers. Not mentioned, though, are a whole slew of health-care mandates Democrats want passed, including coverage for contraception, mental illness, minimum staffing levels for nurses and a revamp of nursing home regulation.

Sharing Democratic lawmakers’ frustration have been consumer groups left out of some of Davis’ planning sessions on health care that industry representatives have attended. Consumer advocates became alarmed when Davis announced — after remaining silent for most of the session on health care — his preference to see a scaled back effort this year, which came only days after a $100,000 fundraiser hosted by health insurance executives.

Last week the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights sent the governor an invitation to meet with a group of citizens to discuss HMO issues and to hear things from a patient’s perspective. According to spokesman Jamie Court, Davis had not responded to the request as of last Friday. “We’ve heard nothing but the sounds of silence and the ca-ching ca-ching of the cash register,” said Court.

Despite the governor’s wishes, Democratic leaders have not said they’re willing to hold back all health care legislation this year. “We certainly can work with the governor about narrowing down the number of bills, maybe prioritizing some of them,” said Assm. Spkr. Antonio Villaraigosa (D-Los Angeles). “I’ve also said, though, that this is a very important issue. Many of us running for office promised the people of this state that we were going to give them HMO reform, and we will give them HMO reform.”

There is some speculation in Democratic ranks about sending the governor legislation he opposes and then attempting a veto override if it’s rejected — to make it clear that they’re not here to just rubber stamp Davis’ agenda. But such a tactic would be risky, one Democratic official pointed out, since it could set off a tit-for-tat situation and lead to non-HMO legislation being vetoed.

As it is, there’s still plenty of other legislation awaiting approval in both houses:

*Bonds — The governor’s task force on infrastructure released its funding recommendations, many of which jive with Democratic plans in the Legislature for water projects, parks and low-income housing. But that’s not true on transportation, for which the commission only allotted half a billion to a billion dollars. Burton has said he wants $8 billion — down from his original plan for $16 billion, and nothing will happen on the other bonds if Burton doesn’t go along.

*Tort Reform — SB 1237, the so-called Royal Globe bill by Sen. Martha Escutia (D-Huntington Park), which would allow lawsuits against insurance companies for bad faith, is still being held in the Senate while the author and Davis discuss a compromise. There’s also Villaraigosa’s MICRA legislation, AB 1380, which would attach a cost-of-living adjustment to the cap on pain-and-suffering awards in medical malpractice cases. Villaraigosa hasn’t given up the goal of raising the $250,000 cap itself, but it’s risky to try, given the opposition from moderates in his caucus to doing anything more.

*Gun Control — The new assault weapons ban may be law, but there’s still several other controversial gun-control measures awaiting approval. SB 15, Sen. Richard Polanco’s (D-Los Angeles) crusade against inexpensive handguns known as Saturday night specials, may come up for a vote this week in the Assembly, while Assembly legislation regulating gun shows is still in the Senate.

Also awaiting final action are bills seeking higher workers compensation benefits, allowing Election Day voter registration, requiring regular road-tests of seniors for drivers licenses, revamping the collection system for child support payments, expanding the state’s beverage-container recycling law, granting domestic partner benefits to public employees and banning the importation of out-of-state prisoners by private correctional companies.

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